5 Questions Congregations Should Ask Themselves If They’re Really Serious about Following Jesus

Checker cab

I read stories about all these congregations doing amazing things, launching new programs to pair homeless people with vacant properties, rallying around a harassed Islamic community, creating wonderful spaces for prayer and meditation, gleaning food from local producers to feed the hungry. I’m grateful these congregations take their faith seriously enough to actually find new and creative ways of living it out. But seeing the wealth of creativity some churches demonstrate can be discouraging if you feel like you’re a part of a congregation that doesn’t seem to have the resources to do wonderful, Ted Talk kind of stuff.

I recently went to a conference, sponsored by the Center for Progressive Renewal, at which we discussed trend lines in the culture that the church should being paying attention to. One of the trend lines is the sharing economy.

The sharing economy is predicated on the assumption that we create or increase value by partnering with others to share our resources. Uber, a ride sharing service, for instance, matches people who have cars with people who need rides. By paying you, who doesn’t have the overhead of a taxi company, for a ride, I get a cheaper means of conveyance, and you get money to give me space in your car that would be otherwise go unoccupied. Pretty slick, right?1

The only way that a sharing economy works, however, is if there’s trust that what we’re doing isn’t trying to figure out ways to take advantage of each other—which is, of course, exactly what our capitalist systems assumes. In the predominant paradigm of the twentieth century—the Industrial economy—value is created by producing stuff, and then convincing as many people as possible that they need to buy it at prices that maximize profits. Under such an arrangement, because maximizing profits is the engine that drives the economic system, we need to enter into contractual agreements because I feel that I have no choice but to suppose that, given half a chance, you’re going to screw me. I may not know how at this point, but I’m pretty sure that’s the likely outcome.

In a sharing economy, on the other hand, I begin with a different set of assumptions—namely, that we participate in a different kind of arrangement in which generosity, instead of self-interest, is the way to create value. In this system maximizing profit isn’t the driving force, but the belief that participating in a system built on trust, which benefits everyone, is both more satisfying and sustainable. That trust is built on a continued demonstration of my commitment to maintaining a relationship with you that supersedes my desire to angle for an advantage. In other words, I must show that I’m in this not just to get something from you, but because I believe a culture of generosity is more beneficial to everyone, and that if you trust me, you’re more likely to want to continue a mutually beneficial relationship.



Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

A Pastoral Letter to Older Generations about Those Frustrating Millennials

Young folks geographical game 1

At a workshop in Ohio recently, I made note of the fact that emerging generations (Millennials and Gen-Xers), having grown up in a “disposable” world (e.g., sporks, iPods, their parents’ marriages, etc.) — a world that, because of student loan debt and a lack of jobs, requires them to be both mobile and flexible. Emerging generations are much less inclined to want the “stuff” their parents and grandparents have been scrupulously storing up to hand down to them. This is an issue for congregations and denominations that have invested heavily in infrastructure and organizational models, which they worry are not being taken up by the generations coming behind them.

The question that older generations of leaders within mainline denominations must ask themselves, I suggested, therefore, is: “What if the kids don’t want our church?” This is an an important issue in the age of the “nones.”

I could sense the tension. In a room of 118 people, probably ten were under 50 years-old. Some were sad because they’ve labored so long to bequeath something tangible to the to the generations just coming into leadership. Unfortunately, that “something tangible” seems to be a legacy succeeding generations aren’t terribly enthusiastic about embracing.

Others in the audience genuinely tried to understand, saying, “We weren’t a whole lot more grateful to our forbears than these young people are.”

But what struck me was the anger. One woman said, “Well, tell the young people to put down their iPhones and sell their computers, and then we can talk. That’s all they’re interested in anyway.”

“Well,” I thought to myself, “‘It’s not me; it’s you’ is a strategy of sorts, I guess. The young people about whom you’re worried as they skitter out the back door of the church ought to respond well to that.”

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

Being Who You Are and Not Who Everyone Else Wants You to Be

Wind vane

Living in a market-based economy, we tend to think in terms of customer satisfaction. The utilitarian calculation about maximizing the greatest pleasure for the most people drives the economic engine of capitalism. Businesses become successful in a capitalist economy by figuring out what people want, then giving it to them.

There are any number of ways to do that, not least of which is the “customer survey.” I get untold number of solicitations to take surveys–via email, over the phones, walking in the mall, at the cash register in the restaurant.

Sometimes I’m even offered a premium in return (money, gift cards, to be put into a drawing for a chance at a new _____), so badly do companies want to know what I think.

Now, many of these surveys are merely trying to find out how I think the business is doing. Are they providing the service or product they advertise? Do I like the look, taste, texture, durability, hospitality for which I’ve paid?

I understand this kind of market research, and I think it’s probably in my best interest that businesses are trying to figure out how better to do what they do. If I consistently find toenails in my pot pie, the offending eatery presumably has a stake in possessing that information.

Being the kind of establishment that wants this information is a good thing for a business.

There are other kinds of market surveys, though, that seem to want me to tell the company who I think they should be. What should they be concentrating on? If I could pick from a list of core principles, which one do I think is most important?

This kind of market research I find troubling. My first thought is: “If you don’t know who you should be, why should I help you figure it out?”

Don’t get me wrong. Knowing who you are is important information to have. All I’m saying is that asking other people to give it to you is dangerous, and a possible signal that you should be doing something else.

The first kind of survey is designed to improve service, and is therefore almost always a good thing.

The second kind of survey is designed to provide identity, and, I would like to suggest, is a sign of organizational flailing.

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

The Art of Making People Mad for Jesus: 7 Ways to Make Better Congregational Decisions

Tug of war

The Whispers

Does this sound familiar?

“I think we all believe this is an important decision. And, frankly, I’m on board with it myself. But I think we’re going to run into some resistance. I’d hate for us to lose people over this.”

If you’re in leadership in a church, you’ve inevitably been in that meeting. The church faces an exciting opportunity, the benefits of which promise to bring new energy and offer increased possibility for significant ministry. Unfortunately, it means somebody’s probably going to get upset.

I was pastor of a church one time that offered an 8:30 worship service, in addition to the more traditional 11:00 service. It was billed as an “intimate” service. It turns out that intimate didn’t mean that the congregation assembled for the service occupied a cozy space; intimate meant that we could count on about 4–6 people showing up.

The search committee told me that there had been discussions before about doing away with the service, but a couple of the regulars got really upset. So, the service stayed.

I showed up my first Sunday to eight people spread over one half of the sanctuary. The organist played. We sang. I spoke about something not particularly memorable. The whole thing felt, in a word, awkward. People cleared their throats. One guy had had oral surgery and spent the whole time looking miserable. I kept looking at my watch, thinking that, surely, 45 minutes shouldn’t feel so long.

We slogged through that routine for about eight months. Finally, I went to the team responsible for planning the ministry of the church, made up of the officers of the church and the heads of all the committees, and I said, “I think we need to talk about the 8:30 service. I’m not sure that it’s the best stewardship of our resources. I’m there. The associate minister is there. The organist is there. The janitor is there. Many Sundays we have more staff there than congregants.”

A woman jumped in and said, “That’s the golfer’s service. They come early so they can have the rest of the day to do what they want.” Another woman said, “That’s probably true. But there are a couple of people who only go to that service. And if we only serve one person, it’s worth it.”

“I’m not sure it is worth it,” I said. “The service itself doesn’t inspire much passion in anyone, until somebody mentions doing away with it. It doesn’t appear to offer anything uniquely compelling, apart from the time slot. It seems designed to offer convenience, rather than spiritual edification. And even based on that criteria alone, I’m not sure it’s a clear winner. I have really young children, for instance, and my wife works 3rd shift at the hospital. It’s always an adventure just to make it here. So, for what it’s worth, I don’t find it especially convenient.”

As I spoke, I could see the anxiety descend on the group. Brows knitted themselves involuntarily. People took deep breaths and looked at the ceiling. One man kept worrying his wedding ring, moving it up and down over the first knuckle on his finger. An uncomfortable silence ensued.

Finally, a long-time member of the board said what nobody else wanted to say: “It’s stupid for us to keep having that service. Everybody knows that. But if we cancel it, people are going to leave the church.”

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

Musings on My Own Incompetence

Mountain (b&w)

My back hurts. I sit with the laptop resting on my knees, and all I can think about is how much my back hurts. And the second toe on my left foot feels numb and tingly.

I should write but the world impinges. Or perhaps it’s not the world I’m in so much as the world that’s in me that sets up obstacles to the work I claim to want to do, but seem so often incapable of pulling off.

I know the rules about showing up and getting to it. But no matter how often I remind myself of them, I often can’t quite manage to do it. Why is that?

I’d like to say that I’ve figured it out, which is why I’ve determined to set down that hard-won wisdom here. But the truth of the matter is, I’m not sure why I can’t always seem to do what I know I need to do, what I say I reallywant to do. So I’m writing this morning not because I’ve discovered some truth, but because I hope that the process of writing will help me suss out what truth there is to be had. (I fear you’ll find these musings merely an exercise in self-indulgence, but when I lower my bucket into the well, this is what I come up with.)

I don’t know why I go through these huge swings, arcing between focused motivation and fuzzy lethargy. I do know that I’m a strong starter, an idea person, but I’m often a bad sustainer. I don’t want to sell myself short and give you, dear reader, the idea that I’m all talk and no show. I can get things done. I have a pretty good reputation for doing stuff that I say I’ll do. But often, I lose interest at some point and want to move on to the next thing.

I can write a book—not effortlessly, but with the motivational momentum necessary to do the job, and do it passably well. But writing the next book … that’s a tough one. (The prospect of admitting that for you to read sends cold stabs of fear through my chest.)

Man, my back hurts. And my mouth is dry. I think I need something to drink. (See how easily it happens?)

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

Why Knowledge of Injustice Without Action Makes You Part of the Problem

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALet us imagine that you live in a circle of eight houses, seven of which have fertile gardens in back — enough to feed a family. Unfortunately, however, the eighth house has a patch of swampy land that makes growing a garden impossible. Consequently, the people that live there spend their lives on the edge of starvation.

In the middle of this circle of houses is a commons that everyone uses to supplement their own gardens. But the gardening done in the commons, split eight ways, is only enough to give each house a little extra produce to sell for “nice things.”

The sharing of the commons is a tradition that has been passed down to homeowners in the neighborhood for generations. Nobody even questions it. The commons arrangement is just the way things are.

However, one-eighth of the commons doesn’t give the family with swampy land enough subsist on.

But that’s the way it goes, right? Life isn’t always fair. There has to be winners and losers.

Then one day, you’re having a cookout at your house with the bounty harvested from the commons. You’ve invited over a friend, who just happens to be a surveyor. She’s interested by the layout of the neighborhood, and the almost perfect solution of a commons. She thinks this is a great idea.

On her way to the bathroom, however, your surveyor friend happens by an antique survey map of the neighborhood hanging in your study. She begins to inspect it closely, as supper is being prepared. As she looks, she notices that the commons isn’t really a commons at all. In fact, the land that the neighborhood has been using freely to supplement each one’s income is actually a tract that legally belongs to the house with the swampy land.

You immediately realize the implications of this discovery: For years, because of a longstanding tradition, everyone in the neighborhood has been fattening their pocketbooks at the expense of the family that lives on swampy land. In other words, you realize that you’ve been getting rich on the back of the neighbor who can least afford it. You have an epiphany: Your neighbor’s family has been starving, while the rest of the neighborhood has taken the proceeds for itself — the proceeds that rightfully belong to the starving family.

You feel awful. But it was tradition. Nobody knew any better. That you probably should have been more compassionate toward your neighbor all along is beside the point. Now you know.

The moral question is: Having finally realized that you’ve been treating your neighbor’s family unjustly all these years, what are you going to do about it?

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There!

Leg cast

It’s hard to be patient when things look like they’re falling apart.

Which impatience is why congregations in decline start thrashing about, running away from anything new at the first sign of failure—and oftentimes before. That which is new appears threatening in virtue of nothing more menacing than its newness.

So, here’s what happens. A congregation sets out to do the difficult work of transformation—not just a cosmetic tweak here or there, but total tear-out-the-walls-and-change-the-footprint kind of reclamation project. At first, people are excited.

“We’ve been saying we needed to do this for a long time. It feels good to finally get started.”

Everyone’s been told that this is a long, arduous journey, and that they’d better gird up their loins.

“We know. The journey of a thousand miles … and all that stuff.”

But working without measurable results—which, in this case, usually means new young families, in which at least one spouse is a doctor or lawyer—taxes the patience. People have a difficult time laboring in the absence of, what appears to them, as tangible benefits.

The natives get restless.

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

Jesus Is the Worst Thing to Happen to Christianity in Awhile

TractJesus is the worst thing to happen to Christianity in a while.

Want to know how I know?

I got another anonymous letter sent to me today. Actually, it wasn’t a letter at all; it was a tract. Turns out, they still make those. (Which makes sense, because who hasn’t been confronted by a second rate black and white cartoon carrying the grim warning of impending damnation, then fallen down in a tangle of wayward limbs and humiliated repentance?)

The title of this magisterial work of theology? Reverend Wonderful.

In it our protagonist, the sardonically named, Rev. Wonderful (Haha!, Get it? ’Cause he’s really not “wonderful?”) enjoys the untempered adulation of the adoring masses. He’s introduced as the “most loved man in America.”

So what makes the “Reverend” so “Wonderful,” so nationally beloved and respected? He’s theologically liberal, of course. (Because, you know, all the famous preachers are liberals. They all have megachurches and television empires and political machines.)

Unfortunately, though, it’s precisely his theological liberalism that leads God to run Rev.’s sorry butt back through the pearly gates and cast him “into the lake of fire forever.”

So, you might be wondering just what is this liberal poltroon’s great sin against God and the Christianity on behalf of which this tract offers its voice? What has consigned the Reverend to eternal perdition? Why, it’s his preaching, of course. Just listen to the evil spewing from his mouth:

“Yes, God cares about souls, but He [sic] also cares about SOCIAL JUSTICE … the poor and needy! We must UNITE to fight ignorance and bigotry” [emphasis in the original].

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

Millennials and the Key to Mainline Decline

Man with monkeyWell, it appears that we’ve gotten Millennials (that generation born 1980-2000) wrong.

Jean Twenge has famously tried to make the case that Millennials are lazier and more selfish than previous generations. In books like Generation Me andThe Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, Twenge has argued that today’s young people have grown up coddled, having been nurtured with an inflated sense of self-worth in an “every-kid-gets-a-soccer-trophy” world.

Dr. Twenge’s research, though, has been controversial among social scientists for some time. Up until recently the counterargument to Twenge’s assertion of Millennial narcissism centered on the idea that Millennials, far from being more narcissistic than their generational forebears, are just motivated by different things. What has sometimes been taken as laziness or a lack of ambition in the workplace is instead a refusal to chase money in favor of looking for happiness and flexibility.

However, it turns out that even happiness isn’t exactly the right description of what drives Millennials in their career choices. In an article in The the New York Times Emily Esfahani Smith and Jennifer L. Aaker argue that happiness isn’t a precise enough explanation of what Millennials seek. Instead, the data show that “Millennials appear to be more interested in living lives defined by meaning.”

Meaning, of course, is a slippery word, since the range of its possible significance seems so personal. Smith and Aaker, however, identify meaning as present in those whose “lives feel connected to others, to work, to a life purpose, and to the world itself.”

This got me to thinking about the church.

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

Why Trashing Jesus Is the Right Thing to Do

Trashing Jesus

Social Media Rorschach Test

I took part in a social media Rorschach Test yesterday.

Before you get your knickers irremediably twisted, you need to pay attention to what’s at stake, because it would be altogether too easy and not particularly profitable to get sidetracked on the Jesus trashing.

Yesterday, as we cleaned out an antebellum mansion the church owns, preparing it for renovation—through a H.U.D. grant—to low cost senior housing, we came across a giant reproduction of Warner Sallman’s iconic, Head of Christ. In the process of trying to break the habit of saving-everything-because-you-never-know-when-Sunday-School-curriculum-from-the 1940s-might-be-useful-again, we threw out a bunch of stuff.Hence this picture of me tossing out a faded, but much beloved, Protestant icon.

What’s interesting, however, is not that we threw out a picture that many people consider something like sacred—we threw out some torn study bibles from the 1930s, too, which made some people duck for fear of lightning—but that it got photographed and posted to social media, where people reacted to it.

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .